Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer calls for calm concerning animal health and Ebola

​By: Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Mark Schipp

At a time of increased anxiety due to continuing infections and deaths from the Ebola virus in West Africa, Australians can be assured that our biosecurity system is managing the risk posed to Australia.

Australia’s biosecurity system is widely recognised as the most robust in the world, and rightly so. We have a world class and high functioning system that matches effort to risks.

Australia has stringent and appropriate measures in place at the border to identify and appropriately respond to passengers entering the country who may have been exposed to infected people or who may be infected themselves.

But are there risks posed by the importation of animal products from West Africa?

The short answer is no.

Ebola virus was identified in 1976. It is not a new threat. Scientific research supports the idea that fruit bats in Africa are the natural host of the Ebola Virus and that people initially become infected through harvesting, butchering or eating fruit bats or infected primates.

Australia does not import bushmeat from West Africa; indeed Australia does not import any meat from West Africa.

A 2002 survey of affected regions of Africa found that dogs might become infected with Ebola virus, but there is no evidence they develop the disease or are able to spread the virus to people or other animals, even in areas where Ebola is present. There is no scientific evidence that domestic animals play a role in transmitting disease to humans.

Animals are only able to come to Australia from approved countries when they are demonstrably healthy through veterinary certification and testing in the country of origin and then periods of quarantine and testing again on arrival in Australia.
Australia does not import livestock or dogs or cats from West Africa.

Non-human primates (apes, chimpanzees, monkeys) exhibit the same clinical signs as people when infected with Ebola virus. Any non-human primates imported into Australia are bred in captivity and can only enter after exhaustive veterinary examination, certification, quarantine and testing. Through our work with zoos, importation is very closely monitored. Imported primates are put into isolation under veterinary supervision on arrival in Australia. The most recent imports have come from New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France; none have been imported from West Africa.

Australia has very good animal health surveillance systems in place. These are built upon a partnership between Australian governments, livestock producers and private veterinarians.

We know that fruit bats in Australia do not carry the Ebola virus.

The Australian Department of Agriculture recognises that many emerging diseases originate in wildlife. For this reason the department supports and participates in animal health surveillance of wildlife backed by Australian Government funding of $4.9 million over five years to Wildlife Health Australia. The CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) has been researching Ebola virus since 2009 with international partners. The department provides financial support to AAHL for emergency animal disease preparedness with a focus on diagnosing exotic and emerging diseases. Senior biosecurity staff of the department and AAHL meet regularly to evaluate emerging issues and biosecurity threats.

The department is currently building a post entry quarantine facility in Melbourne which will become a high security centre of excellence for the import and quarantine of animals, replacing multiple aging facilities around the country. The new facility will consist of a series of independent units for each species so that should a finding of concern occur in one group of animals it will not prevent the rest of the facility and the other units from continuing to operate safely.

Australia also has a robust animal health system with each state boasting strong animal health surveillance and laboratory facilities and now seven universities producing veterinary graduates each year. The department supports active animal health surveillance through a series of grants and funds to raise awareness amongst producers, support training to private practitioners, build capacity in our laboratories and develop strategies and approaches on a national basis.

Australians should be proud of the strong biosecurity system present in this country which works to protect and support the Australian way of life, Australian agriculture and the health of Australian citizens.

As Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer I will continue to monitor the situation and will ensure our biosecurity controls address current and emerging biosecurity risks.